MINI Cooper D 2014 Road Test

Since its launch in 2001, more than 1.8 million MINI Hatches have rolled out of the factory in Oxford, but MINI certainly can't be accused of resting on its laurels. Indeed, even while the finishing touches were being put on this - the fourth-generation car - the company was still rolling out new variations of the old model, with the MINI Works GP and innovative Clubvan. But now the counter has been reset and the latest car, which is new from the ground up, has been set a very tough brief - to beat the old car in all areas.

The styling is a clear evolutionary effort. It's a design policy that MINI set in stone with the arrival of the first new-era model in 2001. The new car carries over the big visual identifiers, such as the floating roof, round headlamps and curvaceous flanks, while at the front there's the familiar elongated hexagonal grille. However, there has been some growth, much of which has been concentrated at the front - the overhang is longer and the grille juts out more than before. This is a side-effect of improved pedestrian impact regulations and in truth it's not been that well disguised. But once used to the new look, there's no denying it's a successful evolution, bringing the MINI bang up to date without scaring existing owners.

The growth hasn't been such that the MINI is anything other than a small car in overall terms. It's still comfortably shorter than an Audi A1 while the - admittedly more commodious - Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo are more than 15cm longer. Importantly, MINI confirms that there's more interior room for passengers and luggage - although we'd still count it as a two-plus-two-friends-who-don't-mind-being-squeezed kind of car than a true four-seater.

The interior has also been overhauled, with what amounts to an all-new ground-up effort. We searched in vain for any carry-over parts, which for anyone unimpressed with the quality and design of the old MINI can only be good news. The overall design remains very familiar, if more premium, but everything has been given a lick of polish, bringing it more in line with BMW's thinking. So, the centre-speedometer has gone, and where that once resided is now the largest (optional) infotainment screen in its market sector. The new heating and ventilation controls are much more conventional and all the better for it, plus the electric window controls have - like the Countryman - moved to the doors. The speedometer and tachometer are mounted on the steering column directly in the driver's line of sight.

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Practicality has been improved - the boot being the biggest upgrade. It needed to be. It's now 30 per cent larger, and comes with 60/40 split, rather than 50/50 as before. There's now a false floor, which means you can set the height to one of two positions - and you can stow it vertically to release the full 211 litres (backrests up). It's still not big and you can't specify it with a spare wheel, which is an annoyance.

The biggest change for existing MINI owners will be the lower and more BMW-like driving position. This, combined with thicker windscreen pillars and less all-round visibility, might take the edge off driving the car confidently in town. The mirrors are bigger and more useful, while the new controls for the driving mode selector (Green, Mid and Sport) and improved iDrive-style interface in the entre console are all mastered in seconds.

We're testing what promises to be the biggest selling MINI in the UK, the Cooper D. Like all the new MINI models, this one gets a brand new power unit - it's a variation of the three and four-cylinder range of petrols and diesels. MINI calls it the TwinPower Turbo, which sounds delightfully retro, but don't think for a minute that the 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine that powers the Cooper D is not truly cutting edge stuff. 

With 116PS and 280Nm of torque (which matches the 2.0-litre Cooper S), comparisons with the outgoing model are largely meaningless. The on-paper figures point to a very efficient little power unit that also performs very well indeed. The claimed 0-62mph time is 9.2 seconds, the combined fuel consumption figure is 80.7mpg (the first MINI to better 80mpg) and the 92g/km CO2 figure (for zero VED currently) is astounding when performance figures are taken into account.

With that out of the way, the big question is what's the new MINI like to drive? The first impression is of astonishing refinement. At idle, there's a little diesel chatter, but you're only really aware of it when the window's open, or at a restart when the Stop/Start system is working. When it's running along A-roads and motorways unless you're really listening for it, you'll not be able to tell it's a diesel. But for those who like to have fun, it pulls very strongly from little more than 1000rpm in any gear. If you hang on to the revs, it has an appealing, slightly off-beat sound that works for us, right up to the red line.

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The gearchange is light and accurate, if not quite as good as before, but the steering is everything a MINI should be - light, accurate and quick, perhaps too quick for some. The handling is predictably brilliant, with bags of grip, and you can chuck it into corners pretty much as before. The improved levels of refinement don't take any of the fun element away from the driver. In Sport mode, the steering has more weight and it has a far more responsive throttle, with an automatic blip of the throttle as you change down. In reality, in every day driving, Mid or Green modes (signalled by a gimmicky series of LEDs surrounding the centre screen) offer all you need. For traditionalists, the retention of a proper handbrake will be good news.

But while it's great for play, the other good news is that the new MINI is also excellent on the motorway. Improved refinement and stability all round make this an excellent long-distance car. Ride quality is also up a notch or two, with tyre and suspension noise markedly reduced. Combine this with the bigger, more supportive driver's seat and you'll step out after a motorway run no more stressed than had you been driving a much larger car.

As before, the MINI's baseline price can be seriously bumped up by plundering the options list. You can specify a BMW-style 8.8-inch screen infotainment system and get it working with all manner of apps via the MINI Connect and Connect XL systems. You can also add head-up display (a first among small cars), upgrade the stereo, specify auto parking and variable damping, which reduces body roll in corners. These all come at a healthy cost, of course, and you need to ask yourself whether you'll need all of it - especially considering the return on them at sale time.

Prices have risen across the board, with around a two per cent premium over the outgoing model, with £13,750 being the new entry point for a MINI One and the Cooper starting at £15,300. The old entry-level MINI First has been quietly dropped and from launch, only the Cooper, Cooper D and Cooper S will be offered, with the One and One D following in the summer.

The good news is that the new MINI is an improvement in all areas. It is more tightly screwed together, feels to have been made from higher quality materials and is both more refined, comfortable, economical and powerful than before. It drives as a MINI should, but with some of the old model's rough edges ironed out - especially inside - and feels hugely well-engineered for the money. It's still a premium small car ideally suited for singles or couples without children. If you want practical, you already know the MINI is not for you. Existing MINI owners will love it though and find it a whole lot easier to live with.

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